Of all the scientific breakthroughs in the 20th century, some might argue that the invention of the airplane was the most influential. Without modern planes distribution channels today would still be limited, vacationers would likely not have an affordable way to travel overseas, and mail would take much longer to deliver; not to mention, much of the economic development over the last century would have gone differently; oh, and space flight would never have been possible without the introduction of flight in the first place. Considering all of the potential changes in society as we know it, it makes sense that the Wright Brothers are so often praised for their contribution to technological development. Of course, for the last 36 years, their famous “flying machine” patent has been missing.
In an historic adventure, brother Wilbur and Orville Wright took to the skies in December 1903. Venturing into Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, they went up in their flying machine and remained in the air for a groundbreaking 12 seconds. Sure, that might not seem like much to people today, but it was a tremendous accomplishment at the time, especially since most scientists agreed that man simply could not fly. Naturally, an invention of this magnitude required some legal protections, so they filed a patent right away. In May of 1906, the Wright Brothers’ patent was approved and become one of the most important patents to be filed.
Of course, when the National Archives lent the document to the Smithsonian Institute’s Air and Space Museum in 1980, they probably assumed it would be safety returned. Instead, after it was checked back into the Archives, it was nowhere to be found. For 36 years, it remained unaccounted for.
While it was unsure whether the Wright Brothers’ patent had merely been replaced or intentionally stolen, it was difficult for the National Archives to really do anything right away. After all, they have over 269 million pages of documents, and sorting through all of those would not be an easy task. Apparently, misplacing documents is not all that uncommon, as they recently launched a campaign known as the Archival Recovery Project, which looks to track down all of the stolen or lost items. In going through the records, this original patent was located sitting in with other files in a limestone cave used for storage of archive files.
Thanks to the Wright Brothers’ invention, humans now have the ability to fly wherever they like. Passenger airliners can transport hundreds at speeds never before dreamed of. Even individual pilots can hop into their relatively inexpensive planes and take off into the sky. It has led to countless other developments and feats of engineering, including the ability for man to reach out and touch the stars. Considering the ramifications of this single patent, it makes sense that those at the National Archives were relieved when it came back into light.